Sitting in his first-grade classroom, Iván Leonel Burruel listens intently as his teacher enunciates distinctly each word she writes on the whiteboard. He knows English grammar from his time living in the United States, but now he works hard to master his lessons in Spanish.
Leonel, as he likes to be called, lived in Arizona almost his entire life, but his family is back in Mexico now after his father lost his job. The boy is adjusting to a new way of learning here in the capital of Sonora state in northern Mexico, where familiar US school fixtures like cafeterias or school buses are rare.
Arriving in an unparalleled migration exodus from the US to Mexico, students like Leonel are changing the country's classrooms and posing new challenges to an education system that experts say is ill equipped to integrate children accustomed to US schools.
"It's a new student population … and schools are having to adapt," says Leonel Gil Vinalay, who works in the international division of Sonora's Secretariat of Education and Culture (SEC).
Throughout Mexico, US-born children – and kids born in Mexico but raised north of the border – face multiple barriers to school enrollment and, once in the classroom, many struggle in their new environment. Not only must they deal with different teaching methods that turn the US model of learning on its head, but they also confront a language barrier and cultural divide.
With an eye toward improving academic success and matriculation in Mexico, scholars in Sonora, aided by academic researchers on both sides of the border, recently launched a three-year study on the challenges these youngsters face in the country of their parents.
About 300,000 of the 1.4 million people who returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010 were US-born children. Their families were either deported or left the country voluntarily after facing job losses and tough immigration laws, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.
The Sonora study will build on preliminary research conducted in 2010, after Mexican educators started noticing an upswing in the number of US-educated students arriving here.
Gloria Ciria Valdéz Gardea, a professor and lead researcher at Sonora College in Hermosillo, says some 10,000 students coming from US schools are enrolled in the state's public schools. But she suspects the number may be much higher because of new arrivals and others who may be slipping through the cracks due to a burdensome enrollment system that requires parents to produce myriad documents sealed and certified in the US to officially accredit their children's studies.
"We don't know exactly how many there are, who they are, or if they are staying in school," Ms. Valdéz Gardea says of the transnational students.
A major obstacle confronting parents trying to enroll their children in school is "a tortuous administrative process that causes a lot of uncertainty," Valdéz Gardea adds, citing the study's preliminary findings.
Parents who are deported suddenly may lack US documents proving their children attended school. The Obama administration has expelled thousands of people living in the country illegally, at a record pace of about 400,000 a year. But even students whose parents had time to obtain official transfers from US schools can face a maze of red tape.
State education officials are taking steps to make it easier for parents to navigate the system, including temporarily waving required documentation and ensuring that principals and other school personnel are aware of the unique needs of transnational students.
Schools across Mexico, including those in Sonora, also have incorporated into the curriculum textbooks that teach about the migrant experience.
Teachers and administrators can attend workshops, seminars, and training courses on multicultural classrooms, although not everyone is eager to participate, says Jesús Eduardo Ramírez Cordoba, who heads international affairs for the SEC, a position created recently, in part to handle transnational educational affairs. The state entity oversees schools in Sonora.
"Some view it as an additional burden," Mr. Ramírez says.
Although migrating north of the border long has been a rite of passage for Mexicans, whose US remittances help strengthen Mexico's economy, those who leave the country and return are often viewed with suspicion. Ramírez acknowledges that more needs to be done for schools to embrace transnational students who often are misunderstood both by their peers and adults.
"It's a challenge that we face, being adequately prepared to offer these children an education that is truly inclusive," says Carmen María Sonoqui Jiménez, an elementary school teacher.
'We had to leave'
The hope is that emerging programs will serve to teach tolerance and respect for diversity, says Mr. Gil from the SEC. Difficulties for these students spill out of the classroom, he adds.
"Many of them were suddenly deported; they were displaced and separated from loved ones," he says. "In a way, they are grieving. Many of them can't accept the fact that they are here."
Leonel was just 10 months old when his mother crossed the border on a visitor visa with her two children to join her husband, who had moved two years earlier. The visa didn't allow for a permanent stay in the country, but the family settled down anyway in the Phoenix area, where Leonel and his older sister, Beatriz, grew up.
Then in 2007 the US economy began to sour and Arizona later adopted the nation's toughest immigration law, known as SB 1070, meant to discourage people from living in the state illegally. When Leonel's father lost his job and couldn't find another, the family returned to Mexico.
"We had to leave," says his mother, whose family is participating in the Sonora study. "We could no longer make ends meet."
Leonel's family moved to Hermosillo in time for the start of school last fall. He would often tell his mother he wanted to go back to his old school in Arizona, that he likes it better there.
"I miss my friends," says Leonel, in English, during recess one day. "They are far, far away."
Beatriz was about to enter eighth grade when the family left Arizona. "It took a while for me to get used to the way things are here," she says.
In the US, her teachers offered more individualized attention to students who needed it – that's something she still misses. She also has to pack a lunch every day, or buy snacks at school, because there is no cafeteria. But what she yearns for the most are extracurricular activities that were readily available in her previous school. And even though she can speak Spanish, she still struggles with the written language.
But, little by little, both she and her little brother are gradually adapting to their new life.
"This is where we are now," the teen says.